When Mitski began playing “Your Best American Girl,” the tall, denim-jacketed matryoshka doll couple standing next to me started making out. “Your Best American Girl,” like most of Mitski’s catalog, is not particularly romantic. It’s a seething, defiant rock song about feeling inadequate and undeserving of love. I imagine it’s a terrible makeout song, because it’s great to play if you’re feeling ugly and righteous and desperate that someone would just make out with you. You listen to Mitski when you want to echo the darkest and loneliest parts of your mind — to wallow in your loneliness, not to reach for connection. For a second, the kissing couple threatened to burst the protective bubble I’d built around myself and the music to get through this show.
I was nervous to see Mitski’s Be The Cowboy tour. There was no doubt she’d sound incredible live — I’ve seen her a couple times on previous tours, and she’s a tremendous musician and performer. But Be The Cowboy is such a lonely record, and the music itself is so dissonant to the massive popularity she’s gained in the last year. Every single date of Mitski’s US tour sold out over a month in advance. Emo’s was wall-to-wall packed with Austin’s coolest young music listeners, and with tickets going for nearly four times face value on Stubhub, she probably could have played a venue twice that size and still sold it out.
She’s got stans now. The line to get into the venue was wrapped around the building two hours before doors even opened, and breaks between songs were filled with shouts of “Queen!!” and “I love you, mother!!” Mitski deserves every bit of acclaim she’s received. I’m glad so many people have been able to find comfort and community in her work, and to hear themselves in her deeply solitary music. But it seems strange to buy a ticket, line up, and experience that kind of loneliness with 1700 strangers. (And, I imagine, just as weird to bare your soul every night to a crowd collectively entertained by your loneliness.)
Despite its crowd-pleasing anthems (“Nobody” is one of those Robyn-esque dance-your-sadness-away bangers), Be The Cowboy gets pretty ugly sometimes. Even alone, it’s hard to listen to if you’re not in the mood to hear it. “A Pearl” twists a Nirvana-esque riff into a song about turning away from a lover’s touch and retreating into the solitude of your own mind, letting the “pearl” of your past trauma roll around inside your head.
On “Washing Machine Heart,” Mitski begs to be used like a washing machine, her heart and body a vessel for the lover to “bang it up inside.” The affection she is desperate for is marred and twisted, destructive and toxic. She wants a love that “falls as fast as a body from a balcony” and “a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground.” Her music isn’t just “honest” in that generic way. You get the impression that she’s digging up her guts to display for these records, and to see her do it live is powerful and a little bit terrifying.
Mitski is an incredible lyricist, and these songs exist in that sweet spot of specific storytelling and relatable, shared human lovesickness and wanting. It’s the kind of music best appreciated alone and seriously, when you can notice every lyrical turn and every switch of her voice from steely to soft. Listening to Be The Cowboy, it’s hard to imagine a crowd of hyped-up, Saturday night Texans drunkenly singing, “You’re growing tired of me / You love me so hard and I still can’t sleep.” But such is the reality of making a record and being a working musician. No matter how introspective your music, unless your name is Frank Ocean, you can’t get away with not performing it for people.
But Mitski miraculously found a loophole. By some magic, she found a way to let all 1700 of us be alone with the music. The last time I saw her during the Puberty 2 era, she was only accompanied by her own guitar. But Mitski gathered up a full band and some striking visuals to back her on this tour. For “A Pearl,” Mitski was bathed in eerie blue light with videos of rippling water playing across three small screens behind her. Her choreography (yes, choreography!) was excellent, alternating between mechanical hand-dancing and fluid movement, locked-knee stoicalness and cathartic writhing on the floor.
During “Francis Forever,” Mitski paced across the stage, walking briskly from the left to right side as she sang about pining invisibly after someone who is oblivious to her existence. The crowds at each edge lit up whenever she’d approach their side of the stage, entranced by her appearing so close, but I got the sense that we were invisible to Mitski, as she paced and performed with precision. The choreography and dancing gave the impression that she was existing in her own world, giving life to these songs and letting us witness it — not necessarily opening the songs up to share with us, but letting us glimpse her magic.
Watching and listening to her perform was like looking through a window at something private, a moment of vulnerability you aren’t really meant to see. At any other show, I’d have been annoyed at the oblivious tall people directly in front of me, but between moving heads, it felt appropriate to only catch glimpses of Mitski as she was performing. I was blocked for almost all of “Happy,” but during one verse, the heads of the couple in front of me broke apart. Mitski wrapped her mic cord around herself, casually turning around and undoing and redoing the loops, a halfhearted noose around her neck, then her chest, then her arms as she unraveled the tangles.
She didn’t talk much to us or provide much lighthearted banter, apart from a brief anecdote about calming herself through a panic attack in the creek behind the “BBQ venue” (we love you, Stubb’s) and the requisite thank-you-to-the-bands. Without the distractions and nods to the audience, it was easy to forget you were at a concert, packed like a sardine into a too-hot warehouse and parked in a lot where you might get towed. The hypnotic visuals and magnetism of her voice and performance made all the extra noise fade away.
Halfway through the American leg of the Be The Cowboy tour, Mitski mastered the art of performing for the community of fans and listeners she has built. Live performances are usually a place where you can leave your loneliness at home for a night, abandon your body for a minute to become part of the energy of a crowd. At most shows, you and the people around you are experiencing the same thing, the same joy, and as the artist plays and sings in front of you, you feed off one another and give each other energy. Mitski has built an invisible screen between herself and her audience. She’s performing for us, but our energy bounces back into ourselves. In a crowd of 1700, we can still feel the profound loneliness of her music, and be simultaneously moved and unsettled by her talent and the show she puts on for us. Not even some kissing slow dancers can break her spell.
Be The Cowboy is out now via Dead Oceans. Get it here.